Pilots say that when flying you can lose your sense of what is up and what is down. In murky water, scuba divers can mistake the bottom for the surface. Skiers buried in avalanches have thought that they were digging through the snow toward the sky only to strike dirt and rock.
Literally, none of these people know which way is up. They have at least momentarily lost the defining markers for spatial orientation: up and down. And in each case, such disorientation can have life and death consequences.
Figuratively, we say that someone doesn’t know which way is up when they seem confused, disoriented, or simply struggling with a task that exceeds their abilities. They have lost the principles that guide and anchor their lives.
“Up,” in this case, does not refer to one’s spatial orientation. Instead, it refers to one’s sense of what’s real, what’s important, and where we’re heading in life. In other words, knowing what’s up means that we are spiritually grounded and oriented. Our spiritual orientation or lack thereof bears directly on the quality of this life and the life to come.
The Ascension teaches us that following the risen Christ involves a radical redefinition of “up.” Luke and John offer us different perspectives on the Ascension. Luke gives a chronological, sequential account of events. John is more concerned with theology than chronology.
We can’t simply blend the two accounts, but neither do we have to keep them completely separate. By bringing the two Gospels into conversation with each other, the meaning of the event of the Ascension as well as its significance for us can emerge more clearly.
We’ll start with Luke.
Luke recounts the Ascension twice. At the end of the Gospel that bears his name (24:44-53) and then again near the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles (1:6-11), Luke relates the story of Jesus departing to sit at the right hand of the Father. In both cases, the disciples witness Jesus rising or going up toward heaven.
The dominant cosmology in Luke’s day was three-tiered. The earth we inhabit is sandwiched between heaven above and hell below. Remnants of this cosmology can be found in phrases and images that we still use. For instance, some things smell to high heaven, and some of us remember listening to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”
Nevertheless, none of us actually accepts this three-tiered cosmology today. We know that, in a way, physical “up” ends with earth’s gravity. When we leave the earth, we enter outer space and encounter weightlessness. Without gravity, the inner ear is unable to locate up and down. On the space shuttle, what is above your head might just as easily be the floor of the craft.
Despite what some have suggested, Luke would have been completely unfazed by this change in cosmology. His point was never about spatial up and down anyway. He was painting for his readers a verbal picture of spiritual up.
The risen Christ has been taken up into the inner life of the Trinity. To say that he is at God’s right hand is to say that he is Lord not only of our lives but of the entire creation. Through him everyone and everything is being made new by being brought into a radically new relationship with God.
And this is where we need to invite John into conversation.
In John’s account of Easter morning, Jesus tells Mary Magdalene that she mustn’t cling to him. He hasn’t yet ascended. Later that very day, Jesus appears to the disciples, invites them to touch him, and then breathes the Holy Spirit into them in a version of Pentecost that varies from Luke’s. Clearly, Jesus has ascended since speaking to Magdalene and showing up in the locked room with his friends. (John 20:11-29)
Now my point here is not to highlight an inconsistency between Luke’s 40-day time period from resurrection to ascension and John’s single-day process. Remember, Luke focuses on chronology and John wrestles with theology.
Instead, I want to underscore the point that chronology is not definitive for John. And that’s why we can say that the great pastoral prayer that Jesus raises to God on the night before his crucifixion can be fruitfully overheard as a prayer uttered by Jesus to the Father after Jesus has ascended. (John 17:6-19) The chronology doesn’t work, but the theology does.
What I want you to hear in this context is this portion of the prayer: Jesus says, “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” (John 17:16)
Jesus is now “up,” taken up into the inner life of the triune God. The human-divine Jesus dwells in his Father’s house. And as Jesus shared with his disciples, he has gone “up” to his Father’s house to make a place for us. (John 14:2-3)
In other words, we are being taken “up” into the very life of God through Christ right now. Through Baptism. Through the Eucharist. Through Confirmation. But also in the face of strangers that give us pause, in our insistence on asking hard and awkward questions, in our refusal to accept a world marred by hunger, oppression, degradation, and violence.
Jesus is changing what we take to be real, what matters, and where we’re going in this life. It is all about relationship. This life begins and ends with our relationship with God. In Christ, God takes us into his very life. And because he takes us all, our relationships with each other are themselves forever transformed.
At least, that’s where we’re heading. For now, we’re having to undergo some disorientation. Sometimes we’re not sure anymore which way is up.
By God’s own design we spend our early years devoted to achievement—to getting our lives together—only to discover with age that life is about surrender and vulnerability and giving our lives away.
“Up” for many of us has involved career success and social status, material comfort and financial security and light-hearted entertainment. And now Jesus is showing us that love and only love is up.
Love is laying your life down for your friend. Any friend of Christ’s is a friend of ours. And since Christ is a shamelessly indiscriminate friend-maker, everybody is our friend.
“Up” for the followers of Jesus is compassion and justice, healing and reconciliation. That is what we find at the very heart of God. And the story of the Ascension assures us that all eternal life flows from and returns to that very heart.
Bishop Jake Owensby preached this sermon at Ascension Episcopal Church in Lafayette, Louisiana.